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Dorothea Dix (1802–1887)

With the start of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for a 75,000 volunteer militia, Dorothea Dix felt compelled to go to Washington in the spring of 1861 to offer her services to the surgeon-general. Dix had earned a national reputation as a reformer for her efforts to improve the institutional care of the mentally ill. An admirer of Florence Nightingale, Dix modeled herself on the young British nurse, whose humanitarian administrations in the Crimean War won her international acclaim. One of the first things Dix did after her arrival in the capital was to make arrangements for a black dress to be made for her, imitative of her heroine. This would be the trademark of both women. Dix won an appointment as superintendent of women nurses, a title she would cling to without salary for the next five years. Dix was a confirmed spinster on the brink of sixty, dour in temperament, disciplined in her work, and totally dedicated to the task at hand—the management and placement of all women nurses who volunteered their services in the government hospitals. The qualifications she set for admission into her ranks were harsh even by the standards of her day. “All nurses are required to be plain looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry, and no hoop-skirts.” And she would consider no woman, accomplished or homely, under thirty.

Predictably, Dix made herself unpopular with many of her nurses. She had trouble relating to them on a human level. Yet their complaints were a mere whisper to the roar of many doctors in the medical corps, who resented the intrusions of women in what was then an exclusively male field. A reorganization of the medical department in 1862 put in place a new surgeon-general, who would ultimately curtail Dix’s authority and the autonomy she demanded. Her independence is what compromised her war service the most, as noted by diarist George Templeton Strong, treasurer of the Sanitary Commission, when he wrote, “She is energetic, benevolent, unselfish, and a mild case of monomania. Working on her own hook, she does good, but no one can cooperate with her, for she belongs to the class of comets and can be subdued into relations with no system whatever.”

In memory of Dorothea Dix’s pioneering efforts to improve conditions for the mentally ill, this portrait was commissioned by St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D. C., an institution founded by Dix. The portrait hung for years upon the hospital’s walls and was transferred to the National Portrait Gallery in 1997, in the hopes that it might receive greater visibility.

Samuel Bell Waugh (1814–1885)
Oil on canvas, 1868
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Transfer from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital


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